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And the winner of this year’s Turner Prize is… the Turner Prize itself

5 December 2019

‘They have unanimously agreed to award the 29th Turner Prize to the collective formed by the four nominees.’ And with that Edward Enninful, the announcer of this unusual Turner Prize, pumped the air with his fists, and the four shortlisted Turner Prize artists climbed the stage at Dreamland Margate to receive the award as a newly and temporarily formed collective. In contrast to Enninful’s response the reaction from the mainstream media (with the honorable exception of Adrian Searle in the Guardian) has been less than positive. ‘Turner Prize reduced to ridicule’ was the Daily Mail’s response while Mark Hudson in the Independent argued that the verdict robbed the public of the chance to scrutinise the relative merits of each artist. Meanwhile the Sunday Times critic Waldemar Januszczak tweeted ‘Weep, British art, weep.’ Ben Luke’s more nuanced response in the Evening Standard articulated misgivings about how the prize could go on as normal after this result, placing future nominees and artists in a tough position.

None of this, however, should be remotely surprising. This year’s edition of the Turner Prize has been widely noted for being the most political outing of the Prize. Laurence Abu Hamdan presented work about a torture prison in Syria, Helen Cammock showed a film about the Irish civil-rights struggle. Oscar Murillo showed an installation of 23 papier mache figures looking out to an obscured view of the sea evoking issues around migration at a time when 39 victims of people trafficking were found dead in neighbouring county Essex, and Tai Shani presented an installation inspired by The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan. Why anyone should expect this group of artists not to have problems with the idea of an overall winner seems bizarre. These artists are critiquing what they see as a world that is out of kilter – to expect them to toe the line because this is the way things have always been done is naïve.

It’s not news that a significant number of artists are making work in response to the crazy times we live in, asking questions, proposing counter-narratives and interrogating the power structures that have contributed to these strange days. Institutions are responding quickly by staging exhibitions of these artists’ work. That these artists continue their critique of social and political situations into critiquing the structures around museums and institutions, and from funding policies to whether a prize should have an outright winner, shows an admirable consistency in those artists’ working practices. You don’t have to like the type of art that the four Turner Prize artists make to get that their rejection of an outright winner is an intellectually coherent extension of how they approach making art.

Why accept a nomination to a prize in that case? Artists have turned down Turner Prize nominations before, but that is an act shrouded in secrecy and rumour. Accepting a nomination and then collectively refusing to abide by the rules is a much more powerful gesture, resonating beyond this particular prize to question whether the format of pitting artists against each other is appropriate for the current political and social context in which they work.

Is this the end of the Turner Prize? That would be perverse given that this edition of the Turner Prize has shown what a prize can do best: informing a wide public about the direction contemporary art is going in (and what it can do). More than 90,000 visitors have attended the exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate so far and the press coverage given to the ‘everyone wins’ decision has been impressive in breadth, if not always in quality. It certainly lays down a challenge to next year’s nominated artists and jury but this could be a positive thing: a few years ago the Turner Prize was widely derided as ossifying. Next year’s jury, shortlist and response from the shortlisted artists promises to be the most anticipated yet.

Niru Ratnam is a gallerist and writer.

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